Deborah Barr stares into a Bible but can't make order of the letters. • She was cross-eyed as a girl, and even after surgery, couldn't learn to read. Her eyes didn't focus. When she looked at you, one pupil would wander away. • But she got by, and now, at 56, Deborah lives on her own in an apartment in public housing. She shops and cooks by herself, trusting a cashier to take the correct amount from her hand, trusting a neighbor to read her mail. To bake a cake, she uses the pictures on the box. • She doesn't need words. But there are some she dreams of reading. • She wants to follow her pastor as he reads from the Bible, telling of Moses and the Israelites and their journey out of slavery. His voice fills the small Israel Bethel Primitive Baptist Church in Seffner, with a message about underestimating people. • Deborah knows something about that.
• • •
Some people called her stupid.
Her mother wasn't one of them.
"Don't be looking down," her mother would tell her. "Hold your head up."
Deborah made it to 10th grade in "slow learning" classes at Brandon High School, she said, before her mother died. Her older sister, Meetha Butler, took her in at 14.
Meetha was 21 and taught Deborah how to cook and write her name, but gave up on a driving lesson when they almost wound up in the Hillsborough River.
Deborah still calls her older sister when she needs help, like she did recently, cooking collard greens.
"You tell me what you think you should do," Meetha told her.
Deborah worked hard to become more independent.
She rolled silverware at Red Lobster and bused tables at Bob Evans. She put away toys at Toys "R" Us and worked in a kitchen at the University of South Florida. These days, she cleans her older neighbors' homes, washes their clothes and tidies up after events at the senior complex in Sulphur Springs where she lives.
She can get just about anywhere on a bus.
But her 63-year-old sister worries she won't always be there to watch out for Deborah and the other family who rely on her.
Deborah has two adult children and three grandchildren. Her daughter, Barbara Barr, lives in Sulphur Springs and her son, Maurice Copeland, is in state prison.
Her sister stepped in to raise the children.
"I felt bad," Deborah said. "I couldn't read them baby stories."
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Deborah rarely tells people she can't read. When she treats herself to a restaurant dinner with neighbors she looks at the menu and asks, "Well, what are you going to get?"
At night in her apartment, Deborah practices her letters on cards with pictures. A is for apple, B is for ball and C is for cat. She knows all the letters and many of their sounds.
For two years, she has been thinking about her plan to go back to school. She knows she needs an assessment and one-to-one help. She used to ride her bike to the library, where she met a woman who helped her to learn. But then the woman stopped coming.
She found new support in church, where the pastor's wife is a reading teacher at Edison Elementary School. Lakisha Woodfork worked with Deborah for a while. She said Deborah has retained some of what she learned in school and is able to learn more, with a patient teacher. Education has changed since Deborah was in school, Woodfork said, with specialists who can target learning disabilities.
"I don't feel like there is a lost cause," Woodfork said.
"With God, anything is possible."
• • •
Moses is at the shores of the Red Sea, fueled by his faith.
Deborah is in a pew, staring into her Bible, picking out one word: "the."
The Rev. Patrick Woodfork is in the pulpit, filling the tiny church with words of hope about all things that seem impossible.
"God will make a way," said the preacher. "Amen if you believe it."
"Amen," she said.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.